Most Oregonians will never see one of Oregon’s wolves. Very few of the people involved in the following story have.
Although seven of these images were already printed in a story entitled, “Wolves of the Wallowas” for the Fall 2010 issue of “1859- Oregon’s Magazine”, this photo project will continue for me personally until I am one of the people who has seen them, and photographed them, and likely beyond that. For now, at the end of this blog I have included two Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife public use images of Imnaha and Wenaha wolves (the latter was shot and killed by a poacher in the Fall of 2010.)
This issue is not just about wolves though, it’s about people. Some of those people and their stories you will find in the following pages. I hope that it sheds some light on the varying perspectives of those involved with, and affected by the return of the wolf to Oregon.
This road leads to remote country populated by both wolves and cattle. The forested ridge line and canyon system found here also serves as a corridor between the Imnaha Wolf Pack hunting areas in the Wallowa Mountains, and the livestock populated valley and prairies.
A nearly full moon rises over an ancient Nez Perce fishing camp along the upper Imnaha River. The forested ridgeline in the background descends from the canyon divide between the Imnaha River Canyon and the Snake River border between Idaho and Oregon. The two alpha wolves of the Imnaha Pack are known to have swum the Snake River and crossed intoOregon from Idaho to become the first breeding pair of wolves to offically “reintroduce” themselves to Oregon.
This ridge, long used by Indians and game, is one of many that could provide a path for the wolves down from the Hell’s Canyon divide and into Wallowa country, to once again howl at the moon from the forests, plains, and mountains of “The Land of Winding Waters” (Wallowa).
In illustrating the concept that wolves have a rightful place in the natural order and balance of life, Levi Carson, Nez Perce Fisheries Technician and traditional fisherman explains how the Nez Perce have long known that predators like wolves help protect the salmon.
By hunting at watering holes, wolves teach the grazing ungulate population like bison, moose, elk, and deer not to bed down or lounge around and graze near the river banks. This keeps them from eating all the lush riverbank shade foliage and defecating in the water, which raises water temperatures making those rivers and streams uninhabitable for spawning steelhead and salmon. ODFW builds miles of fence to protect salmon by keeping cattle from doing this, but those fences do not stop deer and elk. Human hunting and hazing can help to keep ungulates out of riparian areas, and have taken the place of the wolf in the ecosystem to some extent. Some people believe this new balance should be kept intact. Others believe that the old one should be restored, and that it allows for humans to enjoy nature’s resources along with the wolves.
Nez Perce fisherman and Tribal Fisheries Technician Levi Carson casts his line into the upper Imnaha River hoping to land an early salmon. The Imnaha River flows directly out of the Wallowa Mountain high country and into the mighty Snake River. Nimiipu Nez Perce tribal members have fished this river for countless generations, and it has long provided sustenance and life for Nez Perce children and families.
When asked about the wolves in Wallowa County and what he knew about their population in Nez Perce times, Levi replied simply “They were everywhere.” Varying sized populations of wolves have likely inhabited Wallowa country and the surrounding areas for millennia. It is rumored by some locals that they have continued to occasionally pass through Wallowa County over the years, even after hunting bountys officially claimed “all” wolves in Oregon. However this is definitely the first time it has been documented that they have taken up permanent residence in Oregon since their extermination.
Nez Perce fisherman Levi Carson stands in the moonlight along the banks of the Imnaha River where he fishes every year as his family and people have done for millennia.
When asked once again about the wolves, Levi was quiet for a moment, and then he told me the story of how the Gray Wolf Spirit came to be his grandfather’s spirit guide. He spoke of how his grandfather encountered Gray Wolf Spirit as a young man hunting and trapping on Gray Wolf Mountain in the far Northern part of Nez Perce country. Levi’s grandfather told his grandchildren how Gray Wolf Spirit taught him how to make wise decisions regarding his life and how to honor his people and culture. He strove to live by the wisdom he received that day his entire life.
Some fear that wolves in Wallowa County will affect the tourism, recreation, and sporting industries that add a vital economic factor to people’s lives there. Will the arrival of the wolf keep people from visiting Wallowa County to enjoy activities like fishing for record Kokanee on Wallowa Lake?